Pistol Packin' Mama

Every family has tales of courage and great achievements. Mine is no different. But it’s interesting that everyone ignores the bad. If you spend time at a Thanksgiving with us, you will hear about my grandmother shooting the biggest bear in Colorado, how Rev. Henry Fry introduced the Emancipation Bill in Virginia in 1785, and how John Christian Bullitt created the city charter for Philadelphia. You won’t hear stories about Captain William Tucker's retaliation for the 1622 Jamestown Indian massacre. He negotiated a peace treaty and then poisoned the liquor at the treaty celebration. This killed about 200 Powhatan Indians. Nobody uses this as a nighttime story.

One of my favorite ancestors is Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks.

Lucy was born in Albemarle County, Virginia in 1752. In his book Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery, John Bakeless, describes Lucy as “a Virginia lady of the patrician breed, a benevolent family autocrat, with a character so sharp and definite that her twentieth-century descendents still refer to her as Grandma Marks.” The stories, filtered down to me are about her intellect and undaunted courage. She owned a large library, which was unusual for a woman at that time. She was an herb doctor which was probably better than doctors who believed in "bleeding.". And she was tough. Supposedly, during the Revolutionary War, she saved the plantation by wielding a rifle and driving away a party of drunken British soldiers. And, like my grandmother and her bear story, she was a great marks-woman. A tale often told is about a group of men who left Locus Hill on a deer hunt. They returned at the end of the day empty handed and exhausted. Fortunately, while they stalked the woods, Lucy shot a large buck in her front yard, and it was dressed and cooked when they returned.

Lucy’s life was filled with war, deaths, marriages, and scandal. Her son, Meriwether Lewis died, supposedly, from suicide. Until her death she maintained that he had been murdered. As an aside, most of the family continues to believe in the foul-play theory. John Hastings Marks, another son, died at a “retreat” for the mentally ill. Even after these deaths, and the deaths of her two husbands, Lucy continued to ride horseback, serve as an herb doctor, and run the farm. She was 85 when she died in 1837. Her stories have become part of the family yarn. Strangely, there are quite a few stories that involve women and guns. Hmmm.

Many thanks to Christine Adreae’s website on Lucy Merwiether Marks

Family tree courtesy of Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies © 2009 Jefferson LibraryMonticello

The Invention of Flirting in America

The women on my mother’s side of the family have always been attractive. This comes with a price (sanity). There is a long-standing tradition that a distant grandmother brought flirting to the New World. As it turns out, this story was correct. Cecily Reynolds came to Jamestown in 1610 aboard the Swan. Her uncle Captain William Pierce, with his wife Joan, served as chaperon on her voyage. At the age of 14, Cicely married Thomas Bailey. Unfortunately he soon dropped dead from malaria. She then quickly married Samuel Jordan.

The Jordans neighbors were John Rolfe, who had married Matoaka Pocahontas Powhatan. After her death, Rolfe married Capt. William Pierce’s daughter, Jane Pierce.

Cicely survived the Jamestown Massacre in 1622 by, as the story goes, standing firmly at her front door and refusing to move. The Powhatan Indians were impressed with her fortitude and beauty and let her live. That story seems a little far-fetched, but who knows? Soon after the Massacre, Samuel Jordan dropped dead, too. Now, this may seem too coincidental. One husband after another dies suddenly. Marrying Cicely may have seemed like a death sentence. But, in Jamestown death was common.

Within three or four days of Samuel Jordan's death, Cicely agreed to become the wife of Rev. Greville Pooley. She was pregnant with Samuel Jordan’s child, so she asked that the engagement be kept secret. However, Rev. Pooley was so impressed that he had won Cicely’s hand that he spread the word. Not a good move, now a furious Cicely refused to go through with the wedding. Rev. Pooley sought to hold her to her promise. William Farrar, the administrator of her late husband's estate defended her, causing the first breach of promise suit in America. Farrar then became husband three.

They were married for 10 years, and then in 1634, Farrar, surprisingly, died too.

Cicely Reynolds Bailey Jordan Farrar then married my distant grandfather, Peter Montague. Peter came to Jamestown in 1621 aboard the "Charles" at the age of 18. Peter and Cicely had seven children including Mary Montague, George Washington’s grandmother. This marriage lasted for 25 years until Peter Montague died in 1660.

Finally, at 59, Cicely Reynolds Bailey Jordan Farrar Montague married husband five, Thomas Parker. There were no children from this marriage, and Parker died three years later. Unfortunately, as was the case with many women, after this we lose records on Cicely. As a member of my mother’s family, I can surmise that, at this point, she had thick wavy white hair, a wry and dark sense of humor, and perfect grace.

The American Experience in Living Color


When I’m asked, “if you weren’t a designer, what would you do?” I answer, “I would work on the Disneyland Railroad, or I’d study American history.” The Disneyland Railroad obsession is another post, this one is about the title sequence for the WGBH program, American Experience. For me, American history is a remarkable subject. Don’t worry; I won’t turn this into a “Salute to America” blog, yet. Perhaps because so many members of my family were involved in this history since Jamestown and Plymouth, it is alive to me.

The title sequence for American Experience, designed by Alison Kennedy and Chris Pullman, tells a rich history with success, failure, justice, and injustice. It does this poignantly and smoothly. There is a clear subtext that this is all of our history, whether you come from a family that arrived on the Mayflower or arrived at LAX yesterday. So much could have gone wrong with this title sequence. It could have been a sequence of images cataloguing each racial and socio-economic group. It could have fallen into the sappy and nostalgic. However, it doesn’t.  The montage shows us a rich and diverse nation made stronger by our differences, and our shared idea and vision. It does this beautifully, and is about our feelings, not just events.

Looking Back and Humiliating Izabelle

Matoaka Pocahontas Powhatan, 1595-1617

Two years ago, my niece, Izabelle Adams, came to school for “Heritage Day” dressed as Pocahontas and brought an apple pie. Her teacher decided that Izabelle had not done the assignment correctly. She was supposed to have dressed in a European, Asian, or Hispanic outfit and brought food from her family’s native land. But Izabelle did do that. She had gone back 400 years to one of the earliest family members in North America. How far back did she need to go? Would it have worked if she came in a 16th-century English person’s garb? After this embarrassing and unwarranted humiliation, Izabelle was convinced we had invented her familial relationship to Pocahontas. I tried to show her the evidence in the form of the countless books that have been handed down generations. I’m convinced these exist purely to somehow make sure nobody could ever marry wrong. But these are written in obscure 19th century language, and impossible to decipher, especially if you’re 11.

Being a designer and a touch OCD, I drew her a chart. It got bigger and more complex. Who knew so much intermarrying was happening in Virginia before 1900? Along the way, I’ve found many cousins and wonderful stories that expand on my Virginia grandmother’s short, “Well she was a true character,” or, “Goodness, I do believe he may have been a drunkard.” And recently a cousin sent me a photo of my great-grandfather when he was 19 that oddly resembled my own high school graduation photo. The outcome is that Izabelle now believes me, but is unimpressed. And I am trapped in an OCD task, endlessly making connections and finding proof of the family stories I heard was when I was 11.


One of the oblique books passed down

The 9 foot OCD chart

OCD chart detail

Izabelle on one end of the chart

Pocahontas on the other side

How I keep track of all the pieces

The photo recently sent to me of my great-grandfather at 19

Sean at 19

How to Rebound after a Really Bad Day

I'll be honest. This last week has been one hell of a bad week. Like everyone, we're feeling the economic issues. I went home Friday night feeling a little beaten, but I remind myself, to quote from Oscar Hammerstein II, "The world belongs to you as much as the next fella. Don't give it up." So wallowing in self pity isn't an option. And I try to remember that I've got it easy compared to my forefathers who colonized Jamestown and Plymouth, fought a revolution, lost fortunes after the civil war, but just kept going. So, having low cash flow really isn't life threatening. But I'm human, so I felt pretty crummy. Then I came across the title sequence to To Kill a Mockingbird designed by Stephen Frankfurt, and this made everything ok, in addition to the rum and Fresca (Rumescas) and anti-anxiety pill.